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Russia’s Only International LGBTQ Film Festival Faces “Propaganda” Ban

Roman Polyakov, the festival’s public relations director, discusses how the anti-LGBTQ law will impact Russian culture.

Posters are shown for the International Side By Side Film Festival.

On December 5, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a bill into law that significantly expands restrictions on activities seen as promoting LGBTQ rights in the country. The bill, which calls for a “ban on LGBT propaganda” is, in essence, an effort to make LGBTQ existence illegal in Russia — not unlike similar measures in the U.S., such as Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill or the restrictions on trans youth health care in several states. In Russia, this escalation will have many repercussions, especially when it comes to LGBTQ culture.

Side by Side is Russia’s only LGBTQ International Film Festival. Since its founding in 2008, Side by Side has sought to explore the experiences of queer and trans people through art cinema. After Russia’s Ministry of Culture and Roskomnadzor (Russia’s state censoring body) issued a ban on Side by Side’s activities in Russia, the team branched out to Europe, establishing its presence in countries like Georgia, Spain and Estonia, as well as online.

Roman Polyakov, the festival’s public relations director, spoke to Truthout about how Russia’s new anti-LGBTQ laws will impact the film industry and Russian culture, as well as ways in which Side by Side’s staff has been fighting homophobic attitudes in the country for the past decade.

In the exclusive interview that follows, Polyakov shares his analysis of the new Kremlin law, the hopes and fears of queer Russians, and the crucial role of cinema in forging LGBT identity and culture.

Sergey Faldin: The “ban on LGBT propaganda,” which was introduced on November 24 and signed into law on December 5, targeted the LGBT community, forcing them to retreat underground. It completely denies the right to existence of this vast stratum of society. Still, on the other hand, it is another tool of oppression by the Kremlin. It seems that this is not only about LGBT people; in this respect, we are all vulnerable as a nation. Do you share this sentiment?

Roman Polyakov: Absolutely. It seems to me that the LGBT [community] just stood in second place after political activists in a progression of who the Kremlin will try to oppress next. In Russia, no [grassroots] initiative is practically supported in any way, and that’s how it’s been for two decades, gradually becoming worse. We already see some foreign agents among NGOs that, for example, are engaged in helping to protect women against domestic violence. Oppressing LGBT people is probably the most obvious right now for the Kremlin and the easiest thing to do right now, in these circumstances. And by that, I mean the general preparation of society and coming up with a justification for what is happening in Ukraine. Because it seems that this has already become the only explanation for why the war continues. The Russian state keeps coming up with ways to explain to themselves — and the masses — why the war lingers, and they are running out of options. Making LGBT people illegal is just the next obvious step for them. What comes next, we’ll have to wait and see. But surely something will.

Let’s talk about the bill itself. What constitutes “LGBT propaganda”? Even though Russia’s Constitutional Court designated in 2013 that propaganda is strictly about promotion, in practice, we see that there’s no clear definition of it. How will the bill change the lives of so many people within the LGBT community living in Russia?

As we can see, even after 2013, this explanation did not work — anything and everything was called propaganda. Therefore, how we will be today, whether they will distinguish between demonstration and propaganda, is not very clear. It’s pure guessing, nothing more. How will it change our lives? It’s not that the state pays — or ever paid — any attention to the problems of LGBT people. But if these problems were solved by NGOs or some activists, the state did not oppose this. Now it is evident that there will be fewer and fewer solutions and few NGOs that help the community. Is it impossible to say that you are gay anywhere except in the kitchen with your smartphone turned off? I like to think this is a repressive tool that will work the same way as the law on “army fakes” does. Purely a means to scare people into submission and to be quiet.

What do you think they are trying to achieve with all this? What is an ideal citizen of Russia, according to their standards?

A person who trusts. He trusts what he is told and doesn’t ask questions. This is what is being sought in the laws, including concerning war. They want to create a system in which you won’t be tempted to resist.

Can you elaborate on the idea that a ban on so-called “LGBT propaganda” is connected to the war on Ukraine?

It’s not a direct link. Instead, it’s a by-product of what’s happening in the bigger picture. If you look at what is being broadcasted in the state media, it’s all about defending the traditional solid Russian values in which LGBT people are not included. LGBT people have been outcast since 2013 [when the state passed a first version of the “anti-gay law”]. Since we are fighting for a bright future for our children in Ukraine, they say, we must also create a bright future in our country. “We must clean off everything that’s not traditionally Russian.” This is where the rejection of LGBT people in the public space comes in handy because it reinforces the state narrative that we are not at war with Ukraine. After Russia failed to take Kyiv in three days, as everyone in the Kremlin hoped, it was time to repurpose the narrative. That we are at war not with just Ukraine or its people but this “terrible collective west” and its satanic values, including, God forbid, LGBT rights. We are, in fact, trying to save Ukraine from these values.

Do you see a more significant trend in this? A symptom of censorship in the media and popular culture?

In principle, there is a trend on the general ban of any grassroots initiative. People who don’t live in Russia have to understand: even NGOs that take care of sick children or work in areas that are entirely unrelated to politics and war, if they work in some way with the state, for example, receive funding from the state, then these NGOs can’t do anything without the consent of the state. All initiatives that used to be part of the private sector are no longer initiatives. It’s just free labor. It seems to me that such a trend will prevail. It started with politics, of course, but continued into all sorts of social activity.

Before our interview, I looked at this law and saw that there are considerable fines for breaking it, as much as 400,000 rubles (about $6,600). That’s a lot of economic pressure for an average Russian citizen, especially for people outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg. It seems to me that people in the regions will be hit more than those living in big cities by this law.

From a financial point of view, yes, the regions will suffer more. But you have to understand: the provinces weren’t as openly gay as Moscow or St. Petersburg. When I came to my hometown and went to any dating application, if I saw four faces among the pictures downloaded from the Internet, this was already a victory. Therefore, it seems to me that in the regions, if someone is charged with this law on propaganda, it will probably be some kind of activist. The story of Russian gay people was never about a habit of living openly. The few windows people used to have to be who they are will now closed. It’s a sad thing.

Let’s turn to the history of the festival for a bit. “Side by Side” is, in fact, the only LGBT film festival in Russia, even to this day. It was created, as far as I understand, to fight homophobia in Russia. Was there a period since 2008 when the festival team could say: yes, we are doing an important thing, and in fact, we are even succeeding? Or was it always that you felt like you were fighting a tsunami you couldn’t overcome?

I worked on five to seven festivals, being there for a whole day or several days in a row, and in general, not a single festival went without confidence that we were doing something right. Every show, every opening, was a full house. To the point that I remember that my acquaintances asked if I could find tickets for them, and I could no longer, although I sold them right that day. The state tried to implement various strategies to interfere with us — there were reports of a bomb, and we had to evacuate from Red October in 2013 — which, on the one hand, devastates you. Still, on the other hand, you understand that they have no other way to stop you. And this shows you that you have strength as a team. Also, almost nobody refunded the tickets, even though the festival was severely disrupted. So this shows you that the community is there as well. But the idea that we are doing something right has never waned. It was always there and still is to this day.

What happened to the festival’s team after February 24, 2022, when the invasion of Ukraine started, and this new bill was implemented? What does the future look like for Side by Side?

We were blocked by the Ministry of Culture last year, so there have been no shows since January, and they are not expected in Russia. We have screenings in other countries, such as Georgia, Spain and Estonia. In Russia, the festival continues to work as an educational, supportive organization in terms of informing about LGBT people, their problems and their visibility. But outside of Russia, we have already begun to work with Russian-speaking communities, but we also went broader and started holding discussions in English.

Regarding the law, the team at Side by Side is in a state of rather weird excitement. We all knew this would happen — we saw how proposals were submitted, removed, reintroduced and read. We did not plan to stop working, and we just saw, on the contrary, more active growth of people in the community in social networks, more people, more demand. After the bill was passed, we now understand who we work for and why we do it even better. We will primarily stand for the interests of our community and keep serving it. How — that’s a question, but it’s a tactical question. We’ll figure it out.

What role do cinema and your festival play — or have played since its inception in 2008 — in helping people discover who they are and have this sense of legitimacy while facing intense homophobia in Russia?

Our work was to create a full-fledged festival in two cities, and sometimes with shows in the regions, when it was possible to organize it. It was a legal festival approved by the Ministry of Culture. It was a legal form of self-expression and content consumption that could not be consumed elsewhere.

Growing up in the city of Bryansk, a friend brought me a postcard as a gift — it was a postcard from the Side by Side festival. I was surprised to discover that something like that even existed in Russia. So, when I moved to Moscow a year and a half later, I first went to the show and signed up to work for them, and I’ve been with them all this time.

For me, working with Side by Side is not just activism. It’s a way of interacting with the world and the ability to help transgender people and other vulnerable groups in Russia. Art is a step not only towards self-knowledge but also towards helping others.

Would you say that film — as a medium — is more efficient in uniting and educating people than other works of art? Is there something in cinema that helps to convey the values that Side by Side wants to bring in the best, most effective way?

The movies are consumed quickly and are easy to transfer. Cinema is perceived as something safe. It’s a very digestible and understandable format: for the viewer to come and watch a movie and then talk about what they felt watching it. That’s what Side by Side is about. Today we hold screenings in Georgia, Estonia, in Spain — and sometimes not only Russian speakers come there, sometimes not only queer Russian speakers. In Russia, we have formed a tight community over the years, with people returning over and over. We didn’t even have to explain what misogyny is, what feminism stands for, or why you shouldn’t be weird when people are not like you, which is a feat for Russia, as the country, in general, is not very educated on these matters, they have nowhere to learn about it.

The last episode of the second season of “The White Lotus” has been translated into Russian under the new law on the ban on LGBT propaganda. Allegedly, the Russian version of “The White Lotus” goes like this: the word “gay” in the series is not pronounced. The neutral “men” will replace it. When one character says, “We are all gays here,” in Russian translation, it sounds like “we are all men here.” The translators changed the phrase “he is fucking his uncle” into Russian as “well, they did some kind of weird stuff.” Under newspeak in the new realities of Russian streaming, “gays and lesbians” will be replaced by the ideologically correct “men and women.” What is your first reaction to this, what is going on in your head, in your emotions, when you hear and read such things?

Nothing but curiosity, really. It’s obvious what they want. They want LGBT people to cease to exist in public and legal spaces. They want gay people to become illegal. But businesses will try to get out of it. Bloggers will try to get out [of following this law]. I am just curious how the Kremlin will try to implement this law in practice and how much their euphemisms like the proverbial “men and women” — when everyone understands what’s happening — will be effective.

Doesn’t it seem to you at all that it’s rather funny that in 2022 your state decides for you what you should watch, read and enjoy? Does this somehow infantilize the population as a whole?

On the contrary, I hope this will cause some dissatisfaction. What to watch is not a question you cannot solve for yourself. In Russia, people are not following the laws very much. They pretend to follow them, sure, and this is usually enough for the Kremlin to believe that everything is going well.

Honestly, I do not think that there will be raids on apartments in search of books or movies in the next five years, like it used to be in the Soviet times. For the Kremlin, it’s enough that if they are not in bookstores and libraries, then it does not exist. We all understand that things work a little differently. Sure, this bill is an extra step, an extra door for those who want to get this kind of content. But people will still be able to get this content online.

How successful do you think this law will be? Do you think gays, lesbians and transgender people will be treated worse in Russia after this law?

It depends on how long this bill will be in place, which ties to the question of how long the regime will prevail. Because if it lives in the current format for a couple of years, it is unlikely to affect anything seriously. Because people continue to watch “The White Lotus” today, they know what kind of “men” the show portrays and why they are called so ambiguously “men.” But if the law prevails and we see a whole generation of schoolchildren being raised for a decade or so in this environment, then yes, it will severely affect Russia’s social order.

But that probably won’t happen. Or so I’d like to think.

This interview was originally conducted in Russia. It has been edited for clarity.

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